by Enid Zentelis
Though we spent almost every Sunday in his well-appointed home, I knew so little about him back then. From one moment to the next, he was in our lives, and as kids, we just accepted it. I learned much later in life that they met when he was delivering a guest lecture where my mom was a graduate student. As a single mother of two, she was struggling to pursue her dream of getting a PhD in anthropology while simultaneously healing from her nightmare of a divorce. He was a visiting scholar from Latin America. Apparently, his lecture made mention of semiotics in his research. It was that reference to semiotics, my mother’s particular passion, along with what he had to say about the Mayan calendar, that first got her attention. She also liked his voice.
I remember that he made her happy, and I was grateful for that. I was seven, and I wanted my mom to be happy. Any kind of happy would do. By that point, I had seen her physically and emotionally defeated by my father. And then finally, she was free of him, but she was not free of the heavy weight and toll those years had exacted.
The dating scene in small town Washington State for a woman who spoke three languages, who could expound upon any social or political theory, and who was done suffering fools, must have been a challenge. I was too young to really understand it in this way. I didn’t like the thought of anyone touching my mom, but I instinctively knew she needed to find someone to be romantic with.
His name was Manuel. I remember thinking his name was really regal sounding if you said it right. He was a man, and he was well. You could climb to great heights with the N and soar comfortably and securely down upon the U, the E, and the L. The least romantic sounding place in our town was a steakhouse and bar called Black Angus — which inevitably had the G knocked out of its neon sign by bored teenagers every other weekend. I hated that place. There were no windows, and there didn’t need to be. You could just tell the type of guy who was in there for happy hour. Before my mom met Manuel, she and a girlfriend would go dancing on Saturday nights at Black An_us. She always wore the same red, low-cut top and let her hair down. I remember pleading with her not to go there every time she went, but knowing go she must.
In stark contrast, Sundays at Manuel’s house were always full of light, good food, and music. No one was ever sobbing or seemed the least bit upset about anything; not his wife, not his two sons, not even their golden retriever. I’m not sure they had a pet. In my memory, they had everything, so my mind has added a dog — a happy dog.
I remember his wife was petite with short hair. Possibly an academic also, but maybe not. I think his family had moved to accommodate Manuel’s visiting professorship or scholarly research. I think they were from Mexico City. They seemed smart, affluent, cultured. They must have felt lost in provincial, rough-neck America. My mom and Manuel could talk about anything to each other – maybe how Mayans thought of time, or how Northwest Coast natives related to French traders and colonizers, or how very foreign everything is when you’re a foreigner. She liked to discuss big ideas but had a heavy Hungarian accent that sometimes made it hard to understand her clearly. His Mexican accent predisposed him to easily comprehend English words that were embellished with linguistic garnish and phantom diacritical marks.
My sister and I limited our conversations about Manuel and mom. She had emerged from her depression and talking about it might wreck it. So we kind of just held our breath, like when you pass a cemetery and hope everything, like your own life, just lasts a little longer.
We did, however, love to talk about Manuel’s look. We were also limited in our town and limited in maturity. We watched a lot of episodes of Fantasy Island. Mr. Roarke and Tattoo were therefore figures in our childhood. Mr. Roarke and Manuel were the only Spanish accented men we knew at the time, so as kids we drew parallels. Manuel wore turtlenecks and white blazers almost exclusively; Mr. Roarke was never out of his white suit. They both squinted their eyes and looked off into the distance before they spoke. And they were both manifestations of fantasy island, as well as method actors. It was wrong to compare them, and yet in hindsight, they offered very similar things.
We never had a car. My mom didn’t know how to drive, so even if we could have afforded one, it would’ve done us no good. I constantly dreamed of owning a car: sedans, trucks, hatchbacks, go-karts, even Fred Flintstone’s car created longing in me. I had a dream one night that my own body morphed into a car (before Transformers were even a thing). Any kind of wheels would do, so that we didn’t have to walk to the grocery store, walk to do laundry, walk to the welfare office. Walking was only slightly better than taking the city bus, which took forever, never went exactly where you needed to go, and cost a whole dime. And taking the bus was only slightly better than constantly bumming a ride from people’s parents or from acquaintances who were tired of taking us places.
Riding in the backseat of Manuel’s car, I marveled at the freedom one could exercise with a car. You could go here, there, anywhere, anytime. As we drove across town, I relished passing all the suckers who were walking or waiting for the bus. I wasn’t aware that four kids riding in the back of a Ford Fiesta was not luxurious — or legal. Manuel’s sons were older than my sister, so I was the youngest by a mile. They were extremely polite and very well dressed. They didn’t seem to scream at each other like my sister and I did. Their English was good, but maybe not as good as their dad’s. It was hard to tell since they barely spoke to us. Mainly they smiled and nodded.
I remember my mom was in the front seat, the giddiest I had ever seen her in my whole life. Manuel was behind the wheel, his long legs and arms akimbo. They were dropping us kids off at the movie theater. There was a Muppets movie that I was dying to see, and we were actually going to see it. Manuel asked us who wanted popcorn or candy or soda for the movie. Yes, yes, and yes please.
He pulled up outside of the theater and handed one of his sons a twenty dollar bill. We promised to be in the same spot outside two hours later, and we all waved in unison as the Fiesta pulled away. Alone with Manuel’s sons, they smiled some more while my sister shuffled her feet uncomfortably and I skipped into the theater toward the box office.
A brief discussion was had amongst the older kids, mainly between Manuel’s sons. We would not be going to see The Muppet Movie. No one wanted to see that one, right? Instead, we would buy tickets for the R-rated California Dreaming. The boys decided they looked enough like men that if they bought four tickets, no one would stop us. My sister knew I was too young for an R-rated movie, but felt powerless to intercede. After all, they were the ones with the money, and we were too far away from home to walk back.
I’m pretty sure I sat in the middle of a row with no one seated next to me. Everything grew dark. The screen illuminated, commanding our singular attention as we angled our heads up to see it, like an encounter with a deity. The film began. I remember watching a teenage girl sleepily walk from her bedroom into the bathroom to take a shower. As she moved closer to us/the shower, she took her shirt off, gratuitously exposing her breasts to the audience. The film cut to reveal a teenage boy, a house guest and the protagonist, seated on the toilet, pants around his ankles, going to the bathroom. The girl shrieks out in anger, and the boy laughs, amazed by his good fortune. I was instantly mortified to be watching this movie with Manuel’s sons. It was like they were looking at my then-nonexistent breasts as well. My sister had breasts. They were looking at those, too. I sat paralyzed in my seat as the film continued to unspool.
The camera proceeded to assault all of the female characters from every possible angle. No one watching this film would understanding that sexual relationships between men and women were supposed to be symbiotic experiences. Soon, the teenage boy and girl were alone in a beach bungalow. The boy starts wrestling with the girl, determined to remove her clothes once and for all. No means yes. We see her naked body again, the boy enjoys himself, and waves begin crashing (it was a surfing film). And suddenly, in the half light of the theater brimming with manufactured desire, I understood that my mom and Manuel were having an affair, even if I didn’t fully comprehend what sex was. That right at that moment, he and my mom were doing what these teenagers were doing in the bungalow, except it was in our house, which was a subsidized rental in the bottom half of a dingy duplex.
I looked at my sister with alarm, but her eyes were glued to the screen. I could no longer look at the sons. They knew. Would they tell their mother? Or was the sole focus of boys their age getting into that beach bungalow, regardless of if your mother was being cheated on and lied to and if you were part of the lie?
Then a second wave of panic hit me. I didn’t know my mom like I thought I knew her. Or there would always be parts of people you loved that you would never know. On Fantasy Island or The Love Boat, some people had been cheaters. It was always the woman’s fault. Yes, the cheating husband would be admonished in some token way, but the first expression of jealous anger was always directed at the hussy who slept with the married man. Suddenly, Mayan pictograms, Northwest native shamans — all of it seemed a lie. Were their accents even real? Maybe both my mom and Manuel could speak perfectly clear, accent-free English, but they just wore those accents to help obscure all of their wrongdoings in this world.
Another terrible revelation arrived. California Dreaming would eventually end. The bright lights would fade up, and then I’d have to look Manuel’s sons in the eye. They’d know that I’d seen the breast scenes just like they did, and there was no taking it back. We would have to collectively lie about the movie we saw, and then, the worst thing yet, I’d have to look at Manuel and my mom together in the car, knowing they had just taken their shirts off together.
My mom looked nothing like the women on TV who were the temptresses and the objects of all the world’s ire. She looked smart, mystical, and kind. And yet, in that moment, that’s what she was. She must have weighed her sorrow against her principles and what all of her tomorrows would feel like and decided to go with self-preservation — what felt good in the moment, what kept her wanting to live. Being in a relationship with a man she found both sexy and brilliant, who was gentle and happy, or at least self-satisfied, gave her hope.
The ride home was mostly quiet. Of course my mom asked how the movie was. But she was in an altered state and wasn’t really listening to the mumbled, part answer from one of the sons. I wasn’t listening either. I had a hard time looking at her. I remember glaring at Manuel. He winked back at me. I remember thinking, DO NOT WINK AT ME. You just did something with my mom while your sons surreptitiously dragged my sister and me into an R-rated movie. Now I am part of your deception. Now my innocence is lost, whatever that means, or at the very least, is on super shaky ground. We have no special understanding. We no longer find each other the least bit appealing. You are not charming. You are so very human. I think I remember a tepid round of goodbyes as we were dropped off and made our way inside. One of the sons got into the front seat.
I was brooding and upset without explaining myself for many days, but that was not so out of the ordinary. The Sunday visits with Manuel’s family fell away. I don’t know how they ended it. Who knows what their understanding was, as people say. This was all my childhood conjecture. I was only aware that they were no longer together as my mom slipped back into a funk. But it was a different type of depression than the ones we had been used to. She somehow believed in life’s promise again.
It took decades for me to build up the courage to ask my mom directly about this affair. By then, her recollections about the past had somewhat faded as well. Certain things were seared into her memory however: how much pain she was in when she encountered Manuel. How she was first drawn to him when he spoke of the works of the semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce. And she remembered how after she had broken it off, he published an article using some of her work and approach to further his own work on the Mayans. She opened up about this to a female colleague in her program at the time. This colleague then confessed that she, too, had had an affair with Manuel prior to my mother, and that she had introduced him to semiotics and Charles Sanders Peirce. They shared a good laugh and both went on to earn their doctorates.
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